Saturday, May 14, 2005

Our US Trip: Part 7 - Las Vegas to New Orleans - An Epiphany

Thursday 9th December

In contrast to the previous night, this night's sleep was very poor. I struggled to get up at 7:45 with a sore throat which I explained away as the air-conditioning. The other possibility – that I was coming down with a cold – was too painful to think about. Wake up, clean up, pack up, and then downstairs to dodge the cowboys and slot machines and pay our bill. As we exited to the extremely cold and dreary day, I thought that it must also be a cab-driver's convention at Vegas as well, the number of taxis that were lined up to take us to the airport. The cabbie was your typical strong, silent type, and despite the fact that he drove in the exactly opposite direction before hitting a freeway to the airport, I didn't disturb his solitude.

Check-in was painless and quick. Here was the first place where I noticed people taking off their shoes and belts for the run through the metal detector. Some of the cowboys had belt buckles the size of dinner plates, so it was no wonder. Ali and I didn't remove anything, and weren't asked to, we didn't beep, so everything was jake.

Breakfast was Cinnabon – $15 for a bun and an orange juice! The alternative was (of course) Starbucks, so of course we settled for the sugar. While sitting in the cafe eating, I noticed this bloke from outside the shop come into the shop at least three times and re-fill his paper mug from the soda machine. One of the employees was getting a little tired of it, and she had a word to him. He obviously had some (ummm) developmental problems the poor man, and I'm not sure he understood her.

After breakfast we headed to the departure lounge. Poker machines and cow-persons everywhere. Undoubtedly the NFR was winding up, and people were heading home. Ali just had to try the slots at the airport, and one machine swallowed $2 worth of nickels in the space of two minutes.

Our flight to New Orleans via Fort Worth Dallas left on time. There were more Texans than Australians on this flight I can tell you, and there were a lot more fat, noisy people than thin, quiet ones also. Hmmmm do I dare to draw a parallel here? No I think I'll leave it. We arrived at Dallas around midday, and entered the busiest airport we'd been in yet. A lot of Texans with big hats. A lot of people from the Armed Services, the "Ambassador Club" was where they were all going – unfortunately I'd left my army ID at home.

We eventually squeezed into a two-person booth in a Mexican restaurant called "Chilitos". And here we had the best American food since the Thai food on the first night. A great Nachos shared, Margaritta for the Chicky and a couple of Dos Equis para mí. I didn't know anything about this beer but it was quite OK. My poor Spanish at this stage led me to believe that Dos Equis might actually mean "Two Horses" — OK, the big "X's" on the label should really have given it away to me — and I thought of my beloved Two Dogs beer at home which I missed very much. [Yes I know they aren't dogs, they're Tasmanian Tigers.]

About three hours later and a takeoff delay and we boarded our flight to New Orleans. It was quite full. I had the middle seat, and was next to this big black fellow. He fell asleep during the flight, and had this really attractive bottom-lip droop when he slept. No really, it was just beautiful. We talked a little during the flight. Apparently he'd flown straight in from Bangkok, 27 hours of air-planes and -ports, and was going home to New Orleans. Later that night, despite his obvious exhaustion, we spotted him on Bourbon Street. I guess that's one way to regain energy.

The flight into Louis Armstrong airport was a little scary landing over the lake. I experienced the same tension that I see in other people when I am on a flight landing at Sydney and the trip in is over Botany Bay. I think it's called payback.

A long, long wait for the bags and people where crushing in around that baggage carousel as if getting closer would get their bags quicker. Our friend Kevin had mentioned the Louisiana time that everyone runs on, and I didn't expect the bags in a hurry. After pickup into a cab. The driver made some quick enquiries in a very thick indeterminate accent and then ignored us till he took our money. In fact he spent most of the time on the phone to a friend. Not that we could understand what he was saying — it wasn't English, and it wasn't Spanish, and it wasn't French, so I don't know what it was.

Into the French Quarter, our hotel was the Alexa on Royal St, near the corner of Canal St. Despite having a tidy (and tiny) reception, the passageways to the rooms were labyrinth-like, and it appeared that the Hotel was a number of adjacent buildings tacked together. Where the floors didn't meet up there were stairs, and it was obvious that you had enterd a different building. After meandering for a while, and including one time going through the same intersection in a different direction, we ended up in our narrow, double-height room. You could easily have fitted another room in the space between the top of my head and the ceiling. Ali went in to the bathroom to shower before we went out, and while she was in there I heard a Jazz band startup somewhere in the street downstairs. New Orleans we have arrived!

So out we went, along Royal, up Canal, turn right into Bourbon Street. The band that I had heard was here. Traditional Jazz. Some nice trombone-playing too. Along we went, pushing through the Thursday night crowds. Crowds!! People everywhere. On the street - no car could ever get through here - on the pavement, in the bars and the dodgy sex shops, on the balconies above our heads. People with beads, people mostly drunk, music everywhere, not the Jazz I was expecting but more 80's & 90's rock and pop covers. It was a complete madhouse. We walked along Bourbon till we reached St Peters. Ali wanted to go down and see Preservation Hall, I reluctantly agreed, I mean it was on our ToDo list, might as well tick it off straight away.

Preservation HallPreservation Hall. Wow. I will never forget walking into this place. Some officious and previously (like 30 years previously) attractive woman demanded $15 each off us before we could enter. No problems of course. The first thing I noticed was the plump and fluffy cat curled up on the lounge chair in the corridor outside the Hall. Cute. And we went in.

The Hall was quite small mostly dark wood with a brick and concrete wall on the side. It was only half full, and there in front of us was 6 blokes, Trombone, Kit, Bass, Clarinet, Piano, and the Trumpet/Vocal man. These blokes were not just old, but old old. Three black, three white. When we got in they were standing playing "Tiger Rag" which was coming to it's raucous end. The piano had it's front board off so it was louder. No electronics, no microphones. And then the Vocalist, Gregg Stafford, gave the intro to the next song in this teeny, tiny, Armstrong-like croaky voice. "When You're Smiling."

They started as usual, with a tutti run-through the verse. All sitting down in their hard-backed chairs. Then the vocalist stands up and starts singing/speaking in this almost whisper of a voice that somehow managed to carry over the band and implant itself indelibly in my brain. I was absolutely spellbound. My mouth gaped open, tears welled in eyes. This was the most beautiful music I had heard in my life. I realised that up until that point in my life, I had not, not even come close to understanding traditional Jazz. And he didn't sing at us, he sung to us, highlighting his phrases by looking at individual members of the audience, smiling, singing and looking, holding his free hand out and palm up. It was an incredible, engaging performance.

Each bloke did his turn at the solo, standing up if possible, and at the tutti at the end, all the frontline stood up to do the last run-through. Then onto their last number of the set, which was "Careless Love". They were to break for a while, at least 90 minutes. So we went looking for some dinner.

Pere Antoine RestaurantWe found Pere Antoine Restaurant on Royal Street. It was getting close to closing time, there were only four other patrons, but the menu and the price looked OK, so we gave it a go. I had the Snapper Gaige with Crawfish — to me they looked like tiny little prawns — and Ali had Shrimp Creole. The little waiter was quite friendly with an unusual accent. He apologised to us for asking if we were English — I guess he must be aware of the average Australian's reaction to being called a Pom — and launched into us about Australia's War-in-Iraq policies. This was a little bit uncomfortable, because I agreed with the bloke, but you sort of feel honour bound to defend the government you hate because of outside attack. I guess governments have always known this and use it against us, right? As it was in this case, we were both dumbfounded by the suddeness of his tirade, and could only stare back at him. To make it up to us he came around later and advised not only where to go and what to see, but also which way to get there. "Don't walk along this street. If you go to here go directly down Decatur and then up Frenchmans, etc, etc". He knew the phone numbers of the clubs off by heart and wrote them down on a little napkin for us. His "Preservation Hall is just for the tourists" didn't sit well with me, particularly after the experience we'd just had, but OK, we were tourists. But the food and service were excellent otherwise, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to others. Two great meals in the same day, but only three good ones in seven days!

After settling up we went back to Preservation Hall for the next set. It was as entertaining as the partial set we'd seen earlier. On the wall behind the band was a sign which listed the prices for requests. Standards $5, Saints $10. The Jazz equivalent of a brass band's "Colonel Bogey". Someone obviously coughed up the $10, so they played The Saints. At the end of the performance as everyone filed out, Alison gave Greggy a $5 or $10 tip over the cover charge. "Thank you, Darling," in that croaky, southern accent.

We went back up to Bourbon Street, the crowds had multiplied, and we toyed with the idea of going into one of the bars, but it was just too much of a crush. The beads, everyone had beads, and the effect they had on people as they were thrown down from the balconies was as if someone was throwing down some form of currency. Ali was able to score some which she put on — at this stage we didn't understand the significance of them. But we scored our beads and marvelled at the crowds and walked back along Bourbon towards Canal and our Hotel. The brief walk along Canal was very scary, with young drunk black blokes hassling us in the street. And the Hustlers. Their gambit was the old, "If you give me $5, I'll tell you where you got them shoes." Kevin had warned us about this one, so we were wise, brother; I got these shoes on Canal St near the corner of Royal!"

We made a quick toilet stop in our Hotel, and then we went down to Decatur to try to find The House of Blues. We did. The line up to get in wasn't too long, but I soon realised that if we did line up, we would be both the oldest and the whitest people in the line. So we bypassed this and went further up Decatur. We found Ryan's Irish Pub, of course, so Alison (Ryan) felt quite at home, particularly with a Baileys. I had a pint of Bass, so also felt quite comfortable, if not at home. After a couple of these, we decided to call it a night.

Just past the Hotel in Royal Street there was an all-night convenience store, so we stopped in there for some supplies. The store was very-very dodgy, I think even the bloke behind the counter was spaced out. We did not feel safe at all — this would not be the last time we would feel this way in New Orleans — I picked up a six-pack of Heineken to keep me company and Ali picked up a chick drink. It was 1:30am — back to the Hotel for bed and sleep.

New Orleans had blown me away on the first night, and I was wondering if it could be topped. Bourbon Street was not what I imagined it to be; yes the drunken raucousness and crowds, but I'd sort of imagined more Jazz, rather than the overloud pop music that was billowing out the doors of the bars. When our friend Kevin had insisted we go to Preservation Hall I had thought, yeh OK, but we'll do it just to say we've done it. Not that I doubted Kev, he's never steered us wrong yet, but when you travel, you want to make it your own trip, rather than someone elses.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Our US Trip: Part 6 - Las Vegas - Gob-smacking wealth in the City of Business Cards

Wednesday 8th December

A fairly restful night in our air-conditioned $69 per night luxury room. Looking back, with the exception of the nights spent at Paul and Roz's place in San Francisco, TI was the cheapest place we stayed. And probably the most luxurious. Our latest morning start yet, as we were up and moving around 11am. The weather was once again cold and overcast, if a little better from the previous day.

First stop was (once again) Starbucks. They seem to catch a lot of flack from people about the fact that there is a Starbucks on every corner, but the coffee is generally very good, and certainly is an order of magnitude better than coffee just about anywhere else in the States. Except Peet's, of course.

And once again we started off south down the Strip to check out all the joints. The cabbie had recommended M&M's World, so we first went in there. We didn't buy much, well I didn't buy much. They have a rainbow selection sold by the pound, so we bought some mixed green and gold peanut M&M's for Paul and Roz to be patriotic.

After this, we lunched at Subway, while looking out at New York New York.New York New York
On top of the casino is a roller-coaster, and despite the bitter weather, it was still operational. Well, I guess it wasn't raining. And on we walked, stopping in a souvenir shop on the way to pick up a few presents, and a corner store to buy some supplies. At the corner where the Tropicana is, I got a phone call from home. Greg was asking me whether I'd be playing basketball that night. It must've been Thursday morning back home! Naturally I told him, that while I was keen, I would probably be unable to get there in time.

While at Tropicana, Ali and I had a "Free Spin" on the wheel at the outside of the casino. You "win" a free deck of cards, and to collect, they craftily make you descend into the bowels of the casino to retrieve them. Included in the winnings was a brochure for their entertainment; we noticed that a show was shortly about to start, so we did the poker machine polka to find the place where the show was on: a stage literally placed on top of a bank of poker machines. While waiting Ali pulled $7.50 profit out of a 5 cent machine.

The free show was "Airtime", which featured a couple of very muscly and very gay blokes and a couple of barely-dressed chicks, who did a suspended acrobat type act over the stage. One of the chicks did a hoola-hoop dance with lots of twirling. She was doing the "spotting" thing which ballerinas do to stop getting dizzy, and on her way around I could've sworn she winked at me! Next time around, yep she's winking. Subtle look around, no I'm the only bloke in the area, she's got to be either winking at me or Ali. Ali leans over, "I think she's winking at you," in a very matter-of-fact voice. Then I notice she's not only winking at me, but at a whole bunch of people on her way 'round. It's obviously some showbiz trick to draw you in. After the show ended we left the Tropicana, all the better for the experience.

Further down the Strip we eventually ended up at the pyramid-shaped Luxor . Ali had to ride the lions out the front. Another "sheer-scale-will-amaze-you" type place. We decided to take a peek inside but the photos just do not do it justice. I was actually starting to get sickened by the amount of money that was just floating around in these edifaces. Rooms up inside the pyramid, stone features inside the foyer, uggh, it must've cost tens of millions to build this place. And here I am, an arse-hanging-out-of-my-pants Australian along to have a Captain Cook at the place.

Luxor was our last stop on our walk south, and we'd taken about three hours to get that far. Three hours! So we headed back, looking in at most of the casinos on the way, just for a gawk. Snapped a couple of shots at MGM Grand (and one which I should've shown of the previous day at Paris).

Paul or Roz had recommended we stop in at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. We did, and we were originally intending to stay there for dinner. But it was not to be. After waiting for quite a few minutes at the near-empty bar to be huffily served by the rude barman I returned with our drinks to the table Ali had found. The second round he charged me two dollars more and was even ruder. Obviously I hadn't given him enough tip in the first round and he was trying to make up for it. Which was rubbish because I gave him plenty. Anyway we voted with our feet and left after we had quickly finished up. No need to give them anymore money. I don't recommend Margaritaville.

FatburgerI snapped one of my most favourite shots here. I just couldn't imagine in Australia that anyone would want to eat in a place called "Fatburger." We didn't enter or taste the food, so it may be my loss. However, I'll stand by my decision.

Back we walked, north to TI, then it was rest, a little bit of telly, a snooze, and room service. We went fairly basic with the room service (hamburgers, etc) but it came to $38 plus tip and I was once again disappointed at the quality of the food. Too much and too disgusting. It was now mid-evening so we organised ourselves for yet another walking trip along the strip.

This time it was north, past the huge shopping-complex that we could see from our room window. It wasn't long before the area got rather grotty. I was keen to see Circus, Circus because of the whole "Diamonds are Forever"-James Bond connection. But it was easily the filthiest casino we'd been in so far. And they had a different hiring policy as well, since all the croupiers were Asian. There was an acrobatic show which we caught briefly, complete with live band which consisted merely of drummer, violin and piano accordian. Interestingly, the acrobats ("Isha and Misha" or something like that) were of some Slavic origin, neither spoke very good English. But after the show had finished, they spent about five minutes on the darkened stage going over a couple of moves that they'd obviously stuffed up. We saw them later that night walking down towards the "rich" end of town, chatting away in their native tongue. We didn't stay long in Circus, Circus, long enough to smell the stale cigar smoke only and then we left back towards TI.

As I said the area was a little dodgy. There was a very drunk couple who were being abusive to people who overtook or walked past them. We avoided conflict by walking into Frontier for a quick piss-stop.

One thing I could not get used to was the people handing out semi-porno business cards intending to attract you to strip clubs. It didn't matter that I was walking arm-in-arm with my chick down the street. Every time, they'd spot us, tap the pack of cards in their hand once or twice and thrust them forward towards us. One bloke was so forceful that Ali had no choice but to accept the card, which she quickly discarded. I will always remember Las Vegas for the piles of fluttering little cards in every gutter on every street.

For the last time, we made it back to TI, and went to the "Centre" Bar for a drink. But no dice, pardner, we couldn't get a drink because we didn't have a table or weren't playing one of those dickey-little bar-side poker machines. You can not only sit and get pissed, but you can also lose money gambling at the same time. How convenient. I was ready for bed, but Ali insisted we get a drink somewhere, so we followed the sound of music and ended up in Kahunaville within the bowels of TI. We scored our 2-for-1 cocktail for $7.50, and drank something completely indescribable. The entertainment was Duelling Pianos with two obviously very talented blokes playing and joking, but I was not impressed at all. The sound was so loud that it was actually hurting me to listen to. The jokes the guys said were just a little too off-colour (or should I say off-color) for my mood, and some of the humour was quite insulting in that insecure stand-up comic sort of way. After three drinks I managed to pry Ali away from there and we went out to the general casino.

After trying out a few machines, we both sat down in front of this 5 cent machine and began playing. And lo and behold, at 12:30am on Thursday 9th December we eventually received the fabled Vegas drink service. We felt a right pair of dicks actually because when the chicky came back with Ali's screwdriver and my bourbon, Ali asked her how much it cost and was told in a deadpan voice, "It's complimentary, M'am." Hee hee hee. All this must have inspired the gambling gods to look kindly on us, for Ali won $45 on the machine from an initial $5 outlay.

After this we were both ready to drop, so it was back up to the room and to open the Twinkies that I'd bought in the corner store earlier that day. They are not easy to find in Australia but I had had them before, and devoured two or three with gusto. Then it was to sleep.

The following day we were to leave Vegas for New Orleans. I could easily have done without the Vegas portion of the trip. The sheer wealth pouring into that place is staggering, and for me, it was just a bit too much of a disgusting display. I wasn't impressed by the "replicas"; quite frankly I'll be happy to see the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Fountain. But the real one, not some plastercast knock-off (although I doubt that they were actually made of plaster!). I was not enjoying the food either, and with the sole exception of the Thai dinner we'd had the very first night, I was beginning to think that I'd never enjoy a meal in the US.

But Ali enjoyed Vegas, and for that I was happy that we'd come all this way. She came out a little ahead in the gambling stakes as well, so doubly happy as far as that was concerned. No million-dollar bonus win, however.